Pulling Back the Curtain: Allen Yang, MD, PhD

Allen Yang, MD, PhD
Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer of Xencor

In this edition, Allen Yang, MD, PhD, speaks about working in industry and academia – and the careers that got away.

Where did you grow up?

I’m a native Californian – born and raised in southern California. My parents immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea in the early 1960s as students. I never felt like an immigrant because my parents did a great job creating a perfect suburban childhood.

My mother was a stay-at-home mom and my father was an architect who worked for Volkswagen, designing their dealerships and factories. We moved around a lot for his job, and our extended family was back in Korea, so we were pretty close as a nuclear family.

Were you interested in science as a kid?

I was. My parents bought me a couple encyclopedia sets, including one specifically for science, and I remember sitting on my bedroom floor reading through those. This was before the internet or YouTube or cable TV, and I was fascinated by everything I read about – space, engineering, biology… I am an only child, so maybe that’s why I spent so much time reading encyclopedias.

I was a quiet kid, but I played ice hockey and golf. My dad was an avid golfer, and I think his dream was that I would become a professional golfer. I would follow my dad to the driving range when I was 5 or 6 years old, and by junior high I had a golf coach. It never panned out, but I did work as a caddy at one of our local courses when I was a freshman in high school, which was basically the only job a kid that age could get. I would wait all day for the caddy master to give me a round. I earned $4.50 for carrying 9 holes and $9.00 for 18 holes. We got to play free golf on Mondays when the course was closed for maintenance.

Allen Yang, MD, PhD, with his wife and their two children.

Did you have a backup career in mind?

I knew I loved science and I became fascinated with personal computers in high school. My parents bought me a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model III computer, which cost $1,000. That was an enormous sum of money in the early 1980s, so I have to give them credit.

I loved that computer. I was in the computer club in high school and loved programming and learning how to install upgrades. Back then you had to write away to Taiwan or Hong Kong to order parts and hardware, then read magazines to figure out how to install them yourself. Again, there were no YouTube tutorials back then!

But, here’s the irony: When my dad and I discussed my college plans, he didn’t think there would be a future in computers. This was 1981, so I had to agree – personal computers weren’t commonplace yet and I spent most of my time programming games. It never dawned on me that computer programming could be a career.

Instead, my father encouraged me to pursue medicine. He told me, “Allen, as an Asian, they’ll never accept you in the business world. As a physician, you would be your own boss and you wouldn’t have to depend on anybody.” That might have been true in his career since, as an immigrant, he likely faced some discrimination. To him, medicine seemed like a safer career. So, we compromised and I pursued an MD/PhD.

What specifically drew you to hematology?

Mentors were critical to many of my career decisions. I developed my passion for science when I worked with my thesis advisor Peter Jones, PhD, at the University of Southern California. After that experience, I knew I wanted to do research. I entertained the thought of going straight to a postdoctoral program after medical school, but, around my third year of medical school, we got into patient care. I realized I liked being both in the clinic and at the bench, so I eventually did an internship, residency, and fellowship at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Initially, I gravitated to oncology, building on my cancer research as a graduate student, but several people at MD Anderson steered me into hematology. My lab advisor Jean-Pierre Issa, MD, was instrumental in me becoming a translational researcher, and my clinical advisor Hagop Kantarjian, MD, was a great clinician who also knew drug development. I also had the opportunity to work with Emil Freireich, MD, who ran a seminar class for fellows.

The department was a real who’s who of leukemia experts. Susan O’Brien, MD, and Michael Keating, MD, were there, too, and even the junior faculty was stacked with amazing talent. Watching them was just phenomenal.

As a fellow, I would sit in on meetings to watch the faculty discuss science and patient care. They would argue intensely. I thought, “These people are crazy!” But, after the discussion, they would go back to being the best of friends.

Dr. Yang at the Parix-Roubaix Challenge.

There were so many exciting things going on at MD Anderson while I was there. Imatinib was in clinical trials, azacitidine was in early development, and there were many targeted therapies coming out at the time. How could I not go into hematology after that?

What prompted you to transfer from academia to industry?

I love science, thinking about problems, and learning new things, but I’m not a very good grant writer. Honestly, it was unlikely that I would have gotten tenure if I stuck around long enough for the decision. The pharmaceutical industry was in the back of my mind, but there are no mentors for fellows or researchers. Nobody really knows what goes on in industry until they’re in industry. Because it’s a business, it can be highly secretive.

As I was running trials and my lab and developing my career, I saw exciting things happening in industry. I started to meet some people who worked in the pharmaceutical sector and, well, they seemed perfectly reasonable. Then, out of the blue, a friend from my MD/PhD program who was working at Amgen at the time called me and asked, “Hey, would you be interested in looking at industry?” I was likely going to leave my academic position in California and Amgen is based in Thousand Oaks, so I said, “Sure.”

Did you plan on going back to academia and patient care if it didn’t work out?

Yes, I was hedging my bets with that first position, because, although I love science, I thought that medicine was a safer pathway. I had no idea that industry could be a “safe bet.”

So, I took the Amgen job because it was a local company and that meant I did not have to uproot my family. I went in with the attitude of, “If I like it – great. If I don’t, I’ll try to find another company or go back into medicine or academia.”

I found that I enjoyed working in the new position. There are trade-offs with working in academia versus industry, though. In academia, you are your own boss, within the limits of the university system. You can study graft-versus-host disease one day, then switch over to diffuse large-B-cell lymphoma, and then coagulopathy. As long as you do the research well, get the right funding, and produce good scientific work, you can do that. In industry, they pretty much tell you what you are going to be working on. The agenda is set by patient needs and business interests – those factors usually align pretty well.

Granted, there are a many great scientists in academia who dedicate themselves to a specific disease, find a gene, clone it, develop targets against it, and change the course of the disease. Their careers can be readily tied to a body of work helping patients.

Industry is dynamic, but your work is the company’s work – not your own. If there is a scientific problem that seems interesting and could change the field, a company will put a thousand people on that problem. If it turns out to be a dead end, the company will take those thousand people off the very next day and start on another project. Companies also come and go. If the drug or platform a company has chosen to develop is unsuccessful, the company goes bankrupt and disappears; if its efforts are successful, the company may be acquired by another company and disappear.

Dr. Yang coaching a squirt hockey team with his son.

Industry was a great fit for me because I don’t mind changing products or projects. One day, I could be studying leukemia; the next day, it’s lymphoma, and the day after that it’s checkpoint inhibitors. As long as you’re comfortable picking up new topics and learning about them, then you’ll probably be all right in industry.

Also, my career transition was virtually unnoticeable to my wife and our two kids. We stayed in the same neighborhood and the kids stayed in the same school. The biggest change was that I was home more. When I was in academia, I was never home – I was always either in my lab, seeing patients, or writing grants and papers. I would wake up early on Saturdays and Sundays and go to the Starbucks down the street from our house to start writing. My wife would call me when the kids woke up and I’d come back home. Having a better family life was one of the big decision points for my choice to move to industry.

How did you fill your newfound free time?

When my kids were younger, much of our family time was spent traveling to different activities – our son played ice hockey like me, and our daughter took figure skating and ballet lessons. Now, our daughter has graduated from high school and my son is in college, so I have had more time to pick up different hobbies. I usually start something new every Christmas break since I have a block of free time then.

Dr. Yang playing with his beer league hockey team.

What was your most recent new hobby?

Brewing my own beer at home – it wasn’t very successful. I’ve always played ice hockey. Three years ago, I took up road cycling, which I still do today. Two years ago, I picked up woodworking, which I also still do. My wife is going crazy because the garage is filled with sawdust. I’m not great at woodworking, but I enjoy it and, thankfully, you can learn anything on YouTube. It’s who I’ve been from the beginning: I just like to learn things.

What does your perfect Sunday look like?

I would wake up, go for a bicycle ride, and come home, where we would have lunch as a family. Then, I would go into my garage and do some woodworking for a few hours until dinnertime. After that, I’d go out for a midnight hockey game with my beer league. (Everyone competes for the prime hours in the early evenings, but the old-timers who come to drink beer play later.) I have never done all those things in the same day, but I’m holding out hope.